Chiang Mai artist “MUEBON” posted last week on Instagram: “Earth Day!!! Northern Thailand is choking under a toxic shroud and it’s not getting any better.”

From 2.5PM to Zero: a recap of our Earth Day kick off -and what’s next for our campaign to raise awareness and smart policy

Courtney Savie Lawrence


By Courtney Savie Lawrence of the Circular Design Lab air pollution track with, Weenarin Lulitanonda ,Sivalee Anantachart (Soma), Laura Hammett, Kin Fucharoen, Phai Supkulawal and Liepa Olsauskaite

*version with Thai translation is here.

Last week, our Circular Design Lab Air Track, in collaboration with the Thailand Clean Air Network, launched a pop-up livestream series to explore the links between COVID-19 and air pollution, the ongoing crisis and existing response in Northern Thailand. The big picture is about systemic shifts, and you can see more of our background thinking on why we believe it’s time to reimagine the status quo — and what we can do about it from the perspective of civil society, the private sector and government in our previous post here.

For our first of three sessions, held on Earth Day last week, we had more than 100 people register and join us on livestream for a conversation that explored the links among the ‘invisible enemies’.

Below you can watch the recording, register for the next session on April 29th (of the three part series), and if you find yourself short on time, our team compiled some key highlights and excerpts below. We hope you the find provocations and honest dialogue just as interesting as we did.

Watch what happened during the kick off session 22 April- setting the stage and diving into the intersections of COVID19, Air Pollution and Policy — on youtube here:

Session Highlights — don’t have time to watch? You can catch up below

Thanks to fantastic real-time note translation by the Circular Design Lab volunteers Kin Fucharoen and Phai Supkulawal, we have transcript extracts in both English and Thai.

Moderators: Ms. Sivalee (Soma)Anantachat, Blockchain Mango and Laura Hammett, UNDP

Excerpts of the Opening Remarks from Panelists

Weenarin: COVID-19 may be a public health emergency, but the air pollution problem is no less alarming and deadly. Several pieces of evidence have shown how deadly the air pollution problem can be. WHO estimated that 7 million deaths have been due to exposure to air pollution, while a study by the World Bank and University of Washington estimated that 49,000 deaths in Thailand, in 2013 were linked to air pollution. That number is larger than the current COVID-19 death toll in the US. We may be able to reduce our risk of contracting COVID-19, but as long as we breathe we can barely prevent ourselves from breathing in the polluted air. Air pollution is a very complex problem requiring a complex and multi-faceted approach to resolve.

Thailand Clean Air Network (TCAN) is a group of multi-disciplinary professionals volunteering their time to drive for long-term solutions to the air pollution problem in Thailand and to protect citizens’ basic rights to breathe clean air. The group recognizes that one of the key contributing factors to the problem is the economic growth model pursued by Thailand and other nations without regards to sustainability.

As today is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the air pollution and pandemic crisis both send us an important message; that it is important we humans coexist and cohabit with all other life forms in this one and only place we call home. It is time we came together to push for long-term solution and secure our #right2cleanair.

Dr.Rangsrit: The air quality in Chiang Mai over the past several days has “improved” a wee bit, though still remained in the “orange” zone. It is concerning that the people in the area have become so used to the polluted air that an “orange” is considered “good” and “normal”. The COVID-19 situation, on the other hand, is stabilizing with no new patient and controllable situation overall.

What is alarming is the association between air pollution and the chance of contracting respiratory syndromes such as COVID-19 per the research done by Harvard University. Note though that there is not yet a “cause-and-effect” study confirming that air pollution causes COVID-19 deaths, but the association between the two is clear.

The cause for concern is that being exposed to air pollution long-term is no different than years of chain smoking; the negative impact on health is real. Moreover, Thai people don’t really recognize this fact and don’t realize that air pollution increases their risk of contracting respiratory syndromes which can in turn cause deaths.

“When people die doctors never put down that they die from PM 2.5, we say they die from cancer, but the problem is the policy maker hasn’t realized or not realized the epidemiological data yet, but if you project in 5–10 years that would make a difference.”

Ben: Blue Sky Chiang Mai was born out the frustration that air pollution and forest fires in Chiang Mai have been worsening without response from the government. Blue Sky was therefore established to help where there were gaps, starting from providing volunteer firefighters with the required equipment and protective gears to fight the forest fires in the mountains.The work has highlighted that the government does not proactively prepare for and prevent the problem, but rather swooping in at the last minute to do what they can. This prompted us to work more proactively, including:

Coordinating with Maejo and Chiang Mai universities to push for reduction in forest burning among local hunter-gatherers by developing a supply chain and market for sustainable forest products; Educating local youths and students on how to sustain life and generate incomes without destroying the forests; Providing seed funds for local projects aimed at solving the forest fires and air pollution problems.

The causes of the forest fire problem in Chiang Mai and the north are (1) lack of required equipment and protective gears for volunteer firefighters, (2) lack of clear and long-term solutions from the government, and (3) lack of support from local communities.

Key Messages from the Open Discussion-

Linkages between COVID-19 responses and air pollution solutions

Dr.Rangsrit: COVID-19 has given us an expensive lesson on pandemic response. This is not the first time that pandemic ravaged the earth and it will not be the last. By not respecting nature, we are enabling virus mutations and increasing our risk of pandemic. By not solving air pollution issues, we make ourselves susceptible to respiratory diseases such as COVID-19.

Lack of clear data on the air pollution problem

Ben: The air pollution issue in Chiang Mai has empirically worsened over the past 5 years, but without clear data to indicate the degrees of severity. Ability to monitor the air pollution level and identify the pollutants has been a continued problem especially with PM2.5. However, research is ongoing to alleviate this problem and a clearer view of the issue can be expected soon.

Weena: TCAN has developed Citizen Air Platform (C-Air) to integrate air quality data from various monitoring sources in one place, in order to enhance a comprehensive view of air pollution levels in all areas of Thailand; allowing people to monitor and protect themselves against the pollution, even in areas with no government’s monitoring equipment. To solve air pollution issues sustainably, we need to have good data and databases. Thailand lacks a good database of pollutants, especially the database of industrial emissions from factories in and around Bangkok.

Systematic response to air pollution problems

Ben: Responses to air pollution problems by the government and NGOs are not aligned. Coupled with the lack of responses from parts of the government that should have been able to help, e.g. the military, the issue doesn’t get solved. Conflicts between different groups working on the air pollution and forest fires problems — NGOs, government, academics — have rendered it impossible to have a cohesive and integrated set of responses.

Weena: TCAN’s work in pushing for the long-term solution for air pollution; TCAN has developed the Clean Air White Paper (click here for the PDF) to introduce the basics of the issue. As a follow-on from the White Paper, the group has developed the Clean Air Blue Paper which dives much deeper into the details of every aspect of air pollution, from causes and impacts to gaps in the responses. The document has been completed in Thai and is being translated into English for further distribution to the public.

From the Blue Paper, the group will then develop Clean Air Green Paper which will propose a set of sustainable solutions to the air pollution issue. The Green Paper will be based on the concept that the rights to breathe clean air (#right2cleanair) is basic and inalienable rights to all people residing in Thailand, and to ensure such rights will require policy-level change including an introduction of the Clean Air Act.

Suggestions for the private/business sector

Weena: Most of the private/business sector do not recognize the importance of air pollution and climate change issues and do not realize its economic impact. Research has shown that the PM10 issue once impacted 12.6% of Thailand’s GDP, and PM2.5 is likely to impact even more. Hotels have been known to lose customers due to air pollution driving tourists away from the country. It is time the private/business sector looked at this issue as an economic risk and got involved in the solution.

“It’s about risk management- a lot of companies have not taken into account the environment. Most are externalizing the costs as you can see now, but not internalizing these costs, you can see what is happening with COVID- when people are talking about ‘new normals’- it’s time for businesses to account for all of these risks. We only have 10 years to go, the costs of damage is so significant, the insurance industry knows this. There are solutions for being more green- there are jobs for renewables.”

Dr.Rangsrit: We have been focusing on economic growth without regards to sustainability; it is time we moved away from that mindset.

Ben: The Government sector, especially statesmen in high positions, do not yet understand the complexity of forest fires and air pollution. This message needs to be communicated to them; they need to understand the importance of systematic responses to the problems.

‘What we need is to know how to explain the complexity of fires to cabinet ministers- this was a request from one of the fire fighters I’ve worked with.”

How to donate- Information about Social Giver

Aliza (cofounder of Social Giver): Social Giver is a platform that brings together changemakers and supporters/donors. The platform allows people to support changemaking projects aimed to solve real community problems.

How you can contribute to the solutions?

  1. See the work of Thailand Clean Air Network, read the English version of the White Paper (Thai Version Here) and stay engaged on the facebook page for action here.
  2. Donate to fire and COVID relief efforts through Social Giver
  3. Support the work to push for #right2cleanair with Circular Design Lab- from an education awareness raising and policy shift standpoint. Contact us via Facebook or website

Get Educated and Motivated: Join us live on Wednesday, April 29th at 5pm (ICT) for Session 2 of the Series

“Fighting Fires” — what is happening in northern Thailand today, why it matters and ways to support?

Register for free on Zoom Here:

How to join, and what will we cover?

In March 2020 Chiang Mai made international news as the most polluted city in the world. The toxic particulate matter reached 10 times the recommended norm posing a threat to citizen health. A month later the issue persisted with no sign of stopping. While the government focuses on addressing the pandemic that locked down half of the country, citizens in the north are left to fend for themselves. In this upcoming session, the second of our three part series (Wednesday, April 29th) we talk to air pollution scientists, firefighters risking their lives, and inspiring people who are helping northerners to stand back up on their feet.

It of course is free and open to the public, you can register here.

  1. Wednesday, 29 April, 5–6pm (Bangkok) “Fighting Fires” — what is happening in northern Thailand today, why it matters and ways to support?
  2. Wednesday, 6 May, 5–6pm (Bangkok) “Grassroots to Government” — how can Thailand turn the tide of air pollution and guarantee citizens’ right to clean air?

With a very special thanks to the core volunteers and extended support team of the Circular Design Lab ‘air pollution’ track. Want to get in touch and contribute, please let us know here or reach out to the air track co-leads Courtney, Laura, Weena, Soma.

Additionally, huge appreciation is extended to the Thailand Clean Air Network, and the many other volunteer coalition members and organizations, beyond the Circular Design Lab, who have contributed to the development of the White and Blue Papers, and raising the platform, as well.



Courtney Savie Lawrence

@circular_lab lead #FRSA #THNK, @OxfordSBS #InclusiveInnovation researcher, ecosystem cross-pollinator, #climate innovation + #systems transitions practitioner